Each branch of the US military maintains a reading list: a list of books that are considered recommended or required reading for service members in that branch.

Unsurprisingly, these lists lean heavily toward military history and leadership development, and their contents aren’t that important for our purposes. What I want to discuss is the larger concept of a professional reading list and why it might be worth our attention.

Why does the military do this? Why does each branch bother to publish and maintain a list of recommended books? I see three primary benefits.

First, such a list helps an organization clarify its values. Like individuals, organizations struggle constantly to stick to their core values amid the whirlwind of everyday life. A professional reading list signals to everyone inside and outside of the organization what exactly the organization stands for, and where folks can go if they want to learn more.

Second, a professional reading list enlarges an organization’s shared conceptual vocabulary. In higher education, where I work, this is a common issue. Many higher ed. administrators lack formal training in administration or business, and it can take rookies a while to pick up the concepts necessary for success. A professional reading list handed to each new administrator could help them quickly find their feet.

Third, and most pragmatically, these lists provide a way for those interested in leadership to signal their interest to management. The Marines Corps' list, for example, is organized by “grade level” (an individual’s rank within the Marine Corps), and all Marines are expected to read at least 5 books per year from the larger list. Not everyone does, of course—reading high-quality books is hard work. But those who do the recommended reading can incorporate the concepts and vocabulary from those books into their daily work—a clever form of costly signaling. They’re showing they’ve done optional and difficult work and are ready for more.

Do professional reading lists have a place outside of the military? I think so, but I’m interested to hear your thoughts, especially if you’re a leadership role in an organization. Would you send me an email or leave a comment if you have an opinion on this? Thanks!